With their coproduction of Prince Gomolvilas’s The Brothers Paranormal, Theater Mu and Penumbra Theatre have brought a must-see performance that sets a high bar for intercultural speculative theater. Directed by Lou Bellamy and billed as a “darkly comic chiller,” the play goes far beyond that description as it unfolds into a stirring adventure involving two Thai American ghost-hunting brothers with dubious qualifications for their calling. At turns horrifying and moving, profound and endearing, it sees the titular Brothers Paranormal retained by an African American couple displaced by Hurricane Katrina, who fear they may be haunted by an Asian ghost.
In between it all, you’ll find a play exploring the tension between science and the unexplainable, the joys of Ella Fitzgerald and a good cup of coffee, mental health, our cultural roots, and the importance of travel and reconciliation. The Brothers Paranormal doesn’t cut any corners in delivering a thrilling and exciting meditation on the meaning of death and whether people can come back from beyond the grave (and why). Under Bellamy’s direction, the play pushes the outermost boundaries of what we expect in horror theater, with moments easily rivaling the greatest Asian ghost-story films. It fully vindicates a growth in the genre, opening up tantalizing possibilities of what’s possible onstage with a resourceful troupe.
Regina Marie Williams and James Craven have a magnificent chemistry with one another as the haunted couple, Delia and Felix. Meanwhile, Sherwin Resurreccion, Kurt Kwan, and Leslie Ishii present a compelling picture of a Thai American family—brothers Max and Visarut and mother Tasanee—that struggles at times but still finds ways to stay together, grappling with secrets and trauma and what it means to connect to countries and cultures so different from where they began. Rounding out the the cast, there’s no question that Michelle de Joya’s turn as the young Jai immediately captures your attention and doesn’t let go whenever she’s onstage.
The set design is spare, yet evocative, and indeed gains all of the more power for the illusions it creates as the action moves along. The play also provides an effective audioscape that builds up tension to match some of the best Asian horror films of the last 20 years. The language and themes may be strong for some families, with some intense scares on par with Ju-On or The Ring, if you’re thinking of taking children. High school students at a recent matinee were consistently thrilled at both the story line and the technical feats accomplished in this production.
The Brothers Paranormal doesn’t end the way conventional American horror films and novels end, with enough twists that warrant a repeat viewing. But you don’t need to have roots in Thailand to get the most out of this play, as various characters help guide you along through what might be unfamiliar as they, too, navigate often complicated cultural territory. I wouldn’t go applying to your local Ghostbusters chapter as a specialist in Southeast Asian ghosts after watching this play, but it does provide an excellent glimpse into the supernatural world through an Asian American lens that will hopefully lead to more interest in the subject in the future. Prince Gomolvilas is definitely a playwright to watch, and most readers of Twin Cities Geek will be glad they went.
The Brothers Paranormal runs through May 26, 2019, at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.